Stepping into the unknown

Fifty years ago, three American astronauts took their assigned seats in the Apollo 11 space capsule perched atop a Saturn 5 rocket at the Kennedy Space Centre in Merritt Island, Florida. They were about to embark on one of the most remarkable but uncertain days at work in human history.

Four days later, on the 20th July 1969, Commander Neil Armstrong and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the surface of the moon. The third astronaut, Michael Collins, continued in lunar orbit in the Colombia Command and Service Module that would subsequently return the three safely back to Earth.

It is impossible to imagine the uncertainty that each would have been mentally contending with, but in interviews afterwards, they talked of having absolute clarity and certainty of the mission’s goal and their individual roles in it—they knew where they would be, what they would be doing and when they would be doing it. They had trained, rehearsed and prepared for every known eventuality.

Despite none of the three showing anything but a determination to do what no one had done before, much later Collins acknowledged his only fear was not for his own safety but for how he would deal with returning to Earth alone if Armstrong and Aldrin’s segment of the mission to the moon’s surface met with catastrophic results. This tells us something of the power of a team.

Pioneering Organisational Behaviour Researcher, J Richard Hackman, spent 40 years trying to write the schema for successful teamwork. He uncovered that what matters most to collaboration is not personalities, attitudes, or behavioural styles, but what he defined as certain “enabling conditions,” namely a compelling direction, a strong structure and a supportive context.

The Apollo programme had all three, including a public presidential declaration of intent and about $152 billion at today’s value.

The political posturing that drove US President John F Kennedy’s desire to demonstrate America’s space supremacy by being the first country to land a man on the moon was inextricably linked to the geopolitical uncertainty of the time. Fifty years later the political landscape seems no different.

Geopolitical volatility has always been a driver of uncertainty. It is loosely defined as the risk of one country’s foreign policy influencing or upsetting domestic political or social policy in another country or region. Geopolitical concerns include military conflicts, civil wars, mass migration, terrorist attacks, riots or civil unrest, sanctions, arbitrary trade tariffs, etc.

Earlier this year the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Global Risks Report asked whether we were again “sleepwalking into a crisis.” They suggested that as global risks intensify, so too seemingly does the lack of collective will to tackle them. In its place political divisions harden, and political posturing is no less part of daily news. PwC research echoed that of the OECD, revealing CEOs worldwide are significantly less optimistic about economic growth than they were in 2018, uneasy that rising geopolitical and geo-economic risks will almost certainly take their toll on mid-term business revenues.

Of the nearly 1,400 CEOs in the PwC global poll, 29% said they believe global growth will decline in 2019, up from just 5% the year before. The number of respondents who were confident their companies’ revenue would improve over the next three years dropped to 36%, from 45% in 2018.

British insurance company Aon’s similar survey of CEO sleepless nights ranked economic slowdown as the top concern in 2019, with erratic trade policies, large-scale geopolitical conflicts and frequent financial market turmoil cited as contributory factors.

And while CEO’s toss and turn, communities around the world are testing political might “taking back control” from anti-European voters in the UK to the “gilets jaunes” in Paris or street protesters in Hong Kong, all leaving economists fearing energies spent reorganising local political structures from the ground up risks weakening the collective reaction to emerging global mega-challenges. Their fear is that we are wandering aimlessly into deeper global problems from which we will struggle to disentangle ourselves.

But is the same happening every day at a micro level in new workplaces?

Across the c.85,000 employees whose workplace experience we have measured in “post occupancy” i.e. after a workplace improvement or relocation project, 41% work at an assigned open-plan setting, and in every key impact indicator they report higher average outcomes than the 43% based at unassigned settings. Why, we wonder? Are those employees without designated places in the workplace suffering their own geopolitical uncertainty?

With knowledge transfer and collaborative productivity, a critical component of modern competitive advantage, we must analytically pick apart why employees with assigned desks show notably higher agreement for their workplaces supporting the transfer of ideas and knowledge (+5.7 percentage points), collective productivity (+7.5 percentage points) and of particular interest, a greater sense of community (+5.1 percentage points).

uncertainty, knowledge transfer, support

Is it too far a stretch of the imagination to think that quite literally knowing your position in the workplace delivers a superior workplace experience? Could it simply be that you know what to expect of the place and its immediate surroundings? Is the uncertainty associated with seeking out an unassigned seat burdening employees with unnecessary anxiety? Even the best workplaces have pain points, irritants, annoyances: the morning queue for the lift, the absence of plug sockets in breakout spaces, the search for a meeting room, the coffee too hot / too bitter / too strong / too weak, the colleague with the annoying laugh. But, is knowing what annoyances await you somehow better than having to guess which ones might await you in a work environment lottery?

In a somewhat uncomfortable 2016 University College London (UCL) Institute of Neurology experiment, researchers concluded that knowing there is a small chance you might get a painful electric shock leads to significantly more stress than knowing you will definitely be shocked.

The study’s lead author, Archy de Berker: “It turns out that it’s much worse not knowing you are going to get a shock than knowing you definitely will or won’t” This was the first time the effect of uncertainty on stress has been quantified, but the concept is likely to be familiar to many people and is why apps like Uber show you exactly where your car is en route. The car might be late, but you know how late.

Co-author of the UCL study, Dr Robb Rutledge, suggests “The most stressful scenario is when you really don’t know. It’s the uncertainty that makes us anxious.”

These findings leave us wondering whether this is what employees face on their daily commute to unassigned work settings—not knowing what faces them or who faces them. And whilst real estate advisors might not like the idea, it could well be the case that the cost savings offered by unassigned seating strategies (almost always as a component of tightened occupant densities) will save on headline rent but will cost their clients significantly more in reduced employee experience.

How might this workplace level, geopolitical uncertainty manifest in real terms? Well perhaps it could be that those employees now with unassigned seat positions, which the programme leader romantically describes as newly empowered digital nomads, actually see themselves as refugees whose previous communities were razed, leaving them with nothing more than they can cram in a locker. Whilst these employees might still have a compelling direction, has their sense of a strong structure and a supportive context been unintentionally eroded?

This issue of The Leesman Review probes the subject of uncertainty, and on the 50th anniversary of that one giant leap into the unknown, we extract lessons from channel swimmers and submarine commanders. And we ask you to consider whether the erosive influence of uncertainty is undermining employees’ daily workplace experience, or whether it is societally inevitable and something we just have to learn to get used to.

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